The cashier is sending your produce down the metal slope. No, throwing it at you. The 400 gram can of crushed tomatoes might’ve done some damage to the soft-skinned bunch of bananas already recovering from their airtime had your reflexes not kicked in just in time. Satisfied with yourself, you stand the can upright and prepare yourself for the forthcoming projectiles. The cashier has not said hi. Nor has he not slowed his onslaught. 


Realizing how this works, you begin stuffing your cans of beans, berry muesli, and ricotta-stuffed pasta into your school backpack; you did not bring a bag and none were provided. Your surprise has cost you a valuable few seconds, and the groceries are piling up, still careening down to you at a remarkable rate. Superhuman, even. The individual beeps from scanning the barcode into the computer seem to morph together into one indistinguishable frequency, beeeeeeeeep.


You are deeply impressed, but now is no time to marvel. You have a job to do. Into the bag goes the cucumber, then the rice. You reach for the carton of eggs, but your hand falters. Looking up, the cashier has said something. Stay calm, you tell yourself. No need to panic. You try your luck, reply with one of your perfected German phrases: “mit Karte bitte.” Over two years of learning German, it really has become a work of art. You hardly voice the R, and you know to make a soft click with your tongue for the double T. Apparently unaware of your heightened anxiety, the cashier simply nods, looks down and presses a button on his computer. 


Ha! You’ve done it! He’s clueless, blissfully unaware that you’re American, that you call the metro a Subway and practiced active-shooter drills in middle school. You pay, sweat dripping down your armpits, giddy with excitement. You just might get away with this. But then: the cashier murmurs something as you’re heaving your overstuffed backpack over your shoulder, lentil can corner burrowing into your back. Oh no. One delayed response is normal. Two is grounds for suspicion. This time, your blank expression betrays your level of comprehension: gar nichts. Annoyed with your incompetence, but also laughing at himself — how could he have missed the signs? — the cashier realizes that nothing scares you more than unexpected medical bills. He clarifies in perfectly enunciated English: “Do you want the receipt?” Of course! How could you have let something so predictable slip you up? You remember now, how you paid with your card with a double click on the side of your phone, thinking about how far technology has come to let you buy something as simple as cheese with your face like that. You recall how then, out of a gray box next to the cashier who you thought was frustratingly rude for not so much as acknowledging you when you got to the front of the line (and then, having corrected your impulse, you reflected on how emotional labor is taken for granted, and how would you like it to have to smile at people you barely knew and would have to forget in only a few minutes so that you can “help” the next person in line, and of course that Germans are stereotypically unfriendly, so why were you offended when this man failed to be an exception?) — out of that gray box emerged a long strip of paper, printing with a soft brrr brr brrr that reminded you of home, in the way that the sound of children’s laughter or the rustle of leaves in the breeze might have done for people in the past before streamlined consumption became our national pastime. And the paper was so unnecessarily long, with so much unnecessary text, which was just funny, cause you weren’t going to look at it anyway. You noticed all this, but your still-developing prefrontal cortex was busy pondering whether it would be weird to just carry your eggs on your lap on the Subway — sorry, metro — so they wouldn’t get crushed in your backpack, which didn’t really have any more room anyway. 


“Hallo? Receipt? You don’t know English either?”


You regain control of your body and frantically reach for the receipt, that unassuming foil to your successful getaway, trying to convey as much apology as humanly possible in your gesture without having to resort to the medium of language, which you now know to be unforgiving and divisive. Flush-red with shame and unable to meet his gaze (you would have seen he had already started with the next customer by then), you quickly grab your bag to leave. Emerging onto the cobblestone street bustling with elderly natives briskly strolling alongside newly arrived immigrant families, the early-rising well-dressed professionals passing by the sleepless and thrift-clad youth, you reflect on the German word for groceries, Lebensmittel. How it could be literally translated to “the means of living.” 


Then you decide it’s time to switch to French. 

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